Acupuncture May Not Reduce Knee Pain

Chronic knee pain was not significantly improved with either laser or needle acupuncture

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) Chronic knee pain is one of the most common complaints people older than 50 bring to their doctors, and many doctors and patients may prefer to use treatments that do not involve medication. But acupuncture may not be an effective alternative.

A recent study from the University of Melbourne, Australia, set out to test whether laser or needle acupuncture reduced patients' knee pain.

The study authors found that, although acupuncture produced modest improvements in the short term, the reduced pain and increased knee function didn't last for more than a year.

"Among patients older than 50 years with moderate to severe chronic knee pain, neither laser nor needle acupuncture conferred benefit over sham for pain or function," the authors wrote. "Our findings do not support acupuncture for these patients."

"Sham" refers to the fake laser acupuncture the study authors used to test whether real acupuncture reduced knee pain. Rana S. Hinman, PhD, and colleagues tested 282 patients with chronic knee pain in four roughly equal groups — one got no acupuncture, and the other three received needle, laser or sham treatments.

Acupuncture is an alternative medicine practice in which acupuncturists prick patients' skin with needles to reduce pain and treat a host of other physical and mental conditions. It can be done with needles or lasers.

The patients in the study were treated for 12 weeks. After the treatment, the study authors measured the patients' knee pain and function.

At 12 weeks, the needle and laser acupuncture groups had minor improvements in pain. Needle acupuncture improved knee function slightly more than no treatment — but so did the sham treatment.

All of the improvements vanished after one year.

The study authors wrote that the minor improvements the patients saw at 12 weeks were likely due to other factors, such as the treatment setting, patients' attitudes and the acupuncturist's confidence in the treatment.

Around 18 percent of patients did not return for follow-up assessments after one year, the study authors noted. The authors also noted that they did not use X-rays on the patients when assessing the effects of acupuncture on knee pain.

This study was published online Sept. 30 in JAMA.

The National Health and Medical Research Council funded the study. Some of the authors received support and funds from sports and publishing companies, such as Asics and McGraw Hill.

Review Date: 
September 30, 2014
Last Updated:
October 8, 2014